Managing Your Expectations for Big Celebrations with Kids from Hard Places

If you have opened your home to kids from hard places (IE foster and adopted kiddos), you probably have Big Dreams for them. It is only natural. After all, kids from hard places have probably been shortchanged in the celebration department at key points in their lives. So as a loving and conscientious parent, it is entirely understandable for you to want to lavish lots “make-up” celebrations on them. And because you have likely waited so long for them, you can’t wait for the chance to cherish them, enjoy memorable family times, and shower them with all of the love and joy that they are deserving of (and may have lacked previously). But how much celebration can they handle? Here are some things I believe are important to consider.

One adoptive parent's perspective on how to manage expectations for big days of celebration when you have kids from hard places.

Let’s Back Up the Buggy: Who Are “Kids from Hard Places?”

Because she says it so much better than I ever could, I’m going to let Dr. Karyn Purvis answer that! (And you might be surprised that kids from hard places are not just foster and adopted kids.)

Our Story

We have opened our home to four placements (kids) over the last several years. Our kiddos have had a huge range of temperaments and adaptabilities. Currently, we are parenting two kiddos (“Little Bean” and “Sweet Potato“).

One of kiddos celebrated a birthday recently. We love our kids’ birthdays!! But we have also seen how some of the Big,Β Exciting days of life can turn more stressful than enjoyable with kids from hard places. In fact, over the years, we have made some Big Plans for special celebrations. Thoughtfully planned events that seemed awesome to US at the time. Without taking into account the stress and fallout that we’d be left to pick up the pieces of, long after the celebration ended. So, better late than never, we are keying on that. We did some soul searching in planning the recent birthday, and I’m so glad we did.

There is No One “Right” Answer

For kids from hard places, celebration days may bring a combination of the following challenges:

  • the size of the celebration (big crowds may be overwhelming),
  • the presence of new, or less familiar, people to them,
  • painful memories of previous such celebrations and the family that they miss,
  • extreme sensory input (higher noise level, bright lights, fireworks, new sights or smells, etc.),
  • a change of your typical routine (which you’ve worked hard to establish, creating a sense of safety and thereby earning their trust), andΒ 
  • shortchanging their sleep.

Every child is different, and what works for one will be too much for another. So notice patterns. What things cause your child to have a hard time staying emotionally regulated? For us, I’d say sleep is #1. So, I protect their sleep like a Mama Bear because when that suffers, everything is out of whack for a while.

Let the Child Lead

Once you zero in on the things that seem to keep your kiddo from staying emotionally regulated, experiment with dialing back the plan, and see if that helps. Does the celebration need to be a little shorter? Can the timeframe be moved so that it is in the sweet spot of their daily routine? Do you really need all of those people to be there? What ‘bells and whistles’ of your celebration is your child really counting on, and what could you easily let go by the wayside without detracting from the celebration?

We certainly don’t have this all figured out. Having over-planned (relative to what our kids are up to) many, many times in the past, we are navigating new territory of changing things up to find the right balance of throwing a great party they can anticipate and enjoy, with as minimal leftover emotional fall-out and disregulation as possible. Our recent birthday celebration was the smallest and quietest that we’ve had so far, and we have no regrets. We still had some disregulation due to the excitement and alteration of sleep schedules, but it seems to have resolved itself much quicker this time. (And it was still a great party!)

Who is this about, anyway?

Here, I believe, is the rub: we make it about us. I get it: you have a vision for what it “should” be. Or how it always was (before you opened your home to kids from hard places). But, does your dream for the celebration match up with what is best for your kiddo? Specifically, where he or she is actually at, … right here and now? And if doesn’t, … then what?

We have experienced that letting go of the need for things to be a certain way (I’m talking birthday parties, holiday celebrations, vacations, etc.) is freeing. Having reasonable expectations sets us up for success with our kids, and helps us continue to work with them toward healing. It might be a little bit awkward along the way, as not everyone will understand your choices. That’s OK. Will it always be like this? I’m not sure. That really depends on your kiddo. But at the end of the day, and the end of our parenting journeys, I’m pretty sure that some of the things we worry so much about will not even matter, and what WILL matter is that we met them where they were at.

Tell me I’m not alone. πŸ™‚ Have you struggled to find balance in this area with your kids? What seems to have helped your kids feel celebrated, and yet stay emotionally regulated? Let me know in the comments. I love hearing from you!



  1. Anita Linkenbach
    July 12, 2017 / 8:25 AM

    This makes so much sense… and I think could apply to kids in good places too. Our culture tends to overdo celebrations…in my opinion. A simple day of “favorites”, family, and cupcakes can and really should be enough.

    • Mrs. Bean
      July 12, 2017 / 1:33 PM

      Hi Anita!! I agree. πŸ™‚ Nothing wrong with simple! (Isn’t that how most of us grew up, anyway, … and we are doing just fine??) πŸ™‚

  2. HeidiRenee McClure
    July 13, 2017 / 3:15 PM

    We had to throw out our own expectations the second we brought our boy home. When you become a parent, it truly is no longer about you or your comfort. With kids who come from hard places, this is especially evident. Our first birthday celebration with our son was just a few months after he came home, he was still in major adjustment mode and sugar made him crazy wild man for the rest of the day and night. Instead of having friends over and offering cake, we had pizza for dinner and stuck a candle in it. He found it delightful! Now he expects and loves “pizza birthday cake”.
    We also don’t tell him about special days anymore, it’s always a surprise. If he knows ahead of time he will work hard to sabotage the well made plans with bad behavior. So we just act like it is a normal day with some great surprises mixed in…it’s way better for all of us. For him because the pressure is off, if he knows it’s a special day or event, he really does have to work hard to focus on finding ways to get in trouble. For us, we can enjoy loving on him and showing him good times can be had.

    • Mrs. Bean
      July 13, 2017 / 5:13 PM

      Oh I LOVE this! Thank you for sharing, Heidi, and the pizza birthday cake is a great way to sidestep the sugar without sidestepping the celebration. <3 Way to rock the connection. <3

  3. October 5, 2017 / 2:02 PM

    But, does your dream for the celebration match up with what is best for your kiddo?

  4. December 12, 2017 / 5:48 PM

    I’m a single mom having raised a wonderful young man. Just waiting till spring when I can buy my final home with extra bedrooms to adopt a sibling group. As a school nurse I see the trauma first hand, but am excited to be a mom again. Reading these post’s gives me time to think and prepare. Thanks for the insightfull thoughts.

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